12 characteristics of meaningful nonfiction books

How meaningful books benefit both their readers and their authors

Meaningful books reflect several unique characteristics. They are neither fiction nor non-fiction, yet they benefit from many of the characteristics found in both.

1. Focused on change

Meaningful books exist to help their readers solve problems or achieve goals. Readers don't buy meaningful books to be entertained, nor do writers write meaningful books as creative expression. Yet, in order to succeed, meaningful books must be well-written and reflect the author's empathy with the reader's goals.

Meaningful books are categorized as nonfiction, yet the nonfiction term is too broad to describe a meaningful book. Books about history, for example, are typically referred to as nonfiction. Yet, book about building the Panama Canal is not a meaningful book. Neither is a book about the Microsoft Corporation.

But, books about getting hired by Microsoft, or surviving in its corporate culture, would qualify as meaningful books. An excellent example of a meaningful book is Richard Bolles' perennial best-seller, What Color Is Your Parachute?, which discusses what to do when you lose your job.

2. Target their readers

Meaningful books don't have to be best-sellers in order to be successful. Success in pop-culture terms, such as appearing on the USA Today best-seller lists, or at the top of's sales rankings, is not as important as the book's visibility and reputation among the author's target market.

Books like Nedra Kline Weinreich's Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide that, year after year, become "required reading" in their field do far more for the author than best-seller status would ever provide.

The true measure of a book's success is the quality of the relationships the book builds with the author's target market, rather than the book's popularity among professional critics, book reviewers, or the general public.

3. Action oriented

Meaningful books provide detailed, step-by-step, action plans for their readers. They describe what should be done, and when it should be done. Readers typically learn how to assess their present situation, and what steps to take to achieve the change they desire. This is the formula that "evergreen" books like C. J. Hayden's Get Clients Now! follow.

This forward-looking action orientation is at odds with books that just offer impressions, observations, or a generalized "philosophy." It's one thing to describe and discuss problems like the shrinkage of the Middle Class in America, quite another to show Middle Class readers how to profit from the changes taking place and protect themselves in the future.

4. Invite participation

Meaningful books typically invite reader participation by including numerous assessments, checklists, questions, and worksheets. Often, the worksheets are provided as part of the chapters, although sometimes readers are instructed to visit the author's website to download and print-out the worksheets.

In addition, participation can also take the forms of online discussion forums and blogs associated with each chapter, as Sarah Susanka offers in her Not So Big Life book which applies the principles she developed in her Not so Big House architecture and design books to the challenge of life-planning.

5. Chunked information

Although meaningful books offer all the information needed to solve a problem or achieve a goal, the information is never presented in a single, unbroken, narrative. Instead, information is chunked.

Information is typically delivered in numerous, relatively short chapters that are--themselves-- organized into a few major parts, or sections. This organization helps readers relate the information to their situation and immediately put the author's advice to work.

6. Frequently employ story techniques

Although not written primarily for entertainment, the best meaningful books are written as carefully and as engagingly as the best fiction. Meaningful books frequently include anecdotes and case studies that are as compelling as anything found in the fiction department.

An excellent example can be found in the excerpt from Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman's Sway: The Irresistible Lure of Irrational Behavior. You can access the excerpt here, or my comments and map of the book here.

7. Transparent titles

Unlike fiction titles, which can be as off-the-wall and "creative" as desired, meaningful books are usually introduced by titles that make their intended change as clear and obvious as possible.

A successful title makes it immediately obvious who the book was written for, and what is the change--or benefit--is that the book will help its readers enjoy.

These titles are often accompanied by subtitles that provide more information and amplify the benefit. Often, the title answers the "how" question by emphasizing the author's approach, or the author's qualification, i.e., "A heart surgeon's frank look at exercise for on-the-go executives and business professionals."

Often, a great deal of specificity is built into the titles of meaningful book. Titles frequently describe the number of steps involved in the process, or the length of time it will take readers to enjoy the desired change.

7. Continuing dialog

Meaningul books reflect a process, not an event. The book's publication is just one of the steps that authors take to build an ongoing dialog with their target market and their readers.

More and more, for example, authors distribute their ideas and the chapters as blog posts and as downloads from their websites before the books are published. In fact, Garr Reynolds, when interviewed by Published & Profitable, described how his blog resulted in 3 offers from publishers to write a book well-before he had considered the idea himself.

Published & Profitable Editorial Board member David Meerman Scott, in his highly influential New Rules of Marketing & PR, describes how his own book was driven to success by free chapter downloads before he approached his publisher.

8. Written by non-writers

Most meaningful books are written by business owners and executives rather than full-time writers. Few graduated with English or Comparative Literature majors. Instead, meaningful books are usually written by "marketers who write" because they recognize the value of sharing their expertise with others.

Often, they have had assistance along the way. They may have worked with co-authors, hired ghost-writers, or whose books were written by compiling the experiences of others. Few were formally trained, but all were willing to invest in themselves by leveraging their existing skills and mastering new ones as necessary.

Many books were "written to learn," as William Zinsser wrote in his book of the same title. Writing benefits the writer as much as the reader. It provides an opportunity for authors to discover what they don't know and an opportunity to reorganize and rethink what they already know.

Many candidly admit they are "not writers," even after their books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies!

9. Written with a purpose in mind

When asked, many interviewed by Published & Profitable describe that they had planned how their book was going to benefit their business well in advance of their book's publication.

Rather than viewing their book as a creative endeavor, they wrote their book for a specific marketing, knowing how they were going to create a marketing funnel based on converting readers into clients.

When they were planning their books, they knew what products and services they wanted to sell readers who desired more information and a closer relationship. This is not to say they "held back" on any content, but, rather, they had an idea of how they wanted to grow their business and where they wanted to take it.

10. Multiple formats

Strong ideas live in more than one format. Today, a meaningful book lives not "just in bookstores and bookshelves, but exists in multiple formats.

A printed book available in local bookstores has a tangibility all its own, but, today, an author's ideas should be available for download online as PDF's as well as in popular e-book formats, like Amazon's Kindle. An author's ideas should also be available as audios, podcasts, and videos. Information should be available on a subscription basis as well as for immediate consumption.

Different prospects and different readers have their own format preferences. Authors whose ideas never move beyond printed books and conventional bookstore distribution are cutting themselves off from significant alternative market opportunities.

11. Continuous marketing

Successful authors know that there is no automatic relationship between book quality and book sales, or the creation of long-term relationships with potential clients and prospects.

Many authors put too much effort into writing the perfect book, only to find that is no publisher or buyer interest in their ideas.

Other authors go to great lengths (and expense) promoting their book's initial sales, but fail to write great books, but fail to capitalize on their book's early success by cultivating long-term reader relationships.

Marketing and promotion begins during a book's planning stages, and continues through the writing stage. Marketing may peak during the week of the book's launch, but must be maintained throughout the life of the book. More important, authors must know when to significantly revise their books or build on the success of their book by beginning work on a follow-up book.

12. Longevity

Meaningful books are not 1-week wonders. Their success is measured in years, rather than a brief burst of glory.

With sufficient investment, most books can be "bought to success" through skillful media marketing and promotion. But, only a relative handful of books enjoy decades of continuing success. Only a few books drive their author's profits by continually attracting new clients to their author's profit's making funnel.

With his pioneering job search guide, What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles created a book that has been a top seller, with over 150,000 copies a year, for over 25 years.

What would you rather have? A book that shows up for a short time on a best-seller list, or a book that drives qualified prospects to your website, speeches, and your telephone, year after year?

Are you ready to start your journey to publishing success?

Writing a meaningful book is a journey, a journey that, once embarked upon, can change your life in ways that will only be obvious when they occur. Once started, the journey sets in motion a series of changes that can transform the author's relationship to their topic, their market, and their business.

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